Jan/Feb 2010  •   Fiction

The Emptiness Monk

by John Givens

It was too big. Koda cleaned the blood off and tried it on anyway. He could see well-enough through the looser weave at the front of the basket hat, but he didn't like the way the bottom rim rested directly on his shoulders, blocking his lateral vision and making him vulnerable to attackers coming at him from the side.

I guess I'll just have to smell you first, he said to no one—to the cold empty air, the trampled and bloody snow, to the promise each act finds in its execution the route to the next one.

He removed the basket hat then pulled the Emptiness Monk's ink-black winter robe on over his own. It was too big too. There were bloodstains on the neck band, but he thought no one would notice. He wound the black obi sash around his shrunken belly.

Monks of Emptiness were a fighting order, and members were allowed to possess a single sword which they carried in a sack. Koda retrieved this monk's blade from where he'd dropped it and tossed it into the canal. He loaded his father's swords and his other gear into the black cloth sack and tied it across his back. He wrapped his too-long sword in the black cloth of the monk's leggings and slung it over his back too.

The monk's head had sunk to the bottom of the canal, but his corpse floated low in the black water like a thing formed out of the coldness of winter itself.

Koda continued down the canal bank, his bad knee stiff again, that leg dragging and the off-side arm jerking in compensation. The road passed through a row of bone-white storehouses, the heavy wooden entry-doors set in thick walls and sheathed with iron plates icy with rime. Few people were out. Those he encountered hurried past, muffled up within winter robes. Shops and annexes were sealed against the frigid day, market stalls shuttered, the gate guards at residency blocks huddled around scrappy bonfires, on duty only for as long as fuel supplies lasted. Some looked up at Koda as he hobbled past, and some didn't. It was too cold.

The berm road leading out to the New Nightless City of the Reed Plains ran straight as a bowstring across an empty expanse of wild moorlands. Softly undulating snowfields stretched off in all directions under the cold membrane of stars, the whiteness there broken only by an occasional tangle of brambles or the leafless copses of alders or cottonwoods.

Koda slowed as he came to the first of the squalid wine shops and provisioners established in the moorlands for the benefit of those who could not afford the Nightless City itself. Bonfires set in iron baskets on tripods burned in the middle of the road, and besotted celebrants staggered through the ragged fire-light as they went from wineshop to wineshop, some merry, some belligerent, some maudlin. One degenerate pair danced to a music heard only by themselves. A rascal with a goiter on his neck the size of a summer melon tried to show his penis to a woman who wouldn't look at it. Tucked off in odd corners here and there were true-style drinkers, men who had levered themselves up onto the rim of a state of perfected incapability.

The New Nightless City occupied a low rise of ground surrounded on all sides by empty moorlands. The dull white walls of the enclosure were bleak and featureless in the frozen starlight; and he stood looking at it for a long moment, the density of it, then turned away and hobbled back into the berm-road hamlet, dragging his bad leg through the maze of alleys and waste grounds, following whichever road he happened to find himself on until he came to an abandoned wineshop with streaks of light showing where rain shutters were fitted imperfectly. He slid open the entryway door and stepped inside. A troop of gamblers had taken over the building. They'd built up the fire in the sunken fire pit and were ripping out wooden fixtures and floorboards like wraiths of destruction and burning them in it.

We're closed for repairs, one of the gamblers said; and the others showed Koda faces solemn with malice.

Koda lifted off his basket hat but remained in the entryway.

A tall man sat alone on the single remaining floor mat. He had a solitary tray table with a wine flask and cup on it while the others shared a communal wine pot heating on a trivet set at the edge of their fire. A padded robe was draped loosely over the tall man's head and shoulders; and in the tossing shadows of the firelight, he looked like a moray eel peering out of its hole. Koda saw some of the ruffians were wearing the two swords of a samurai although the crests on their robe sleeves had been removed or defaced. You don't know where you are, said the tall man.

I guess not, Koda said.

Speak up, said the tall man. My hearing is poor. He shoved back the winter robe. Both his ears had been sliced off close to the skull, leaving only crimped buds of flesh, shiny pink as a newborn baby's lips.

I said I guess I don't where I am.

But it doesn't worry you.


The man nodded to himself. There are thirty of us here. All armed and willing. He gazed round as if inviting a confirmation of this estimation. Does that not create a sense of anxiety?

Do I look anxious?

The tall man smiled. No. No you don't. So then you don't know who I am.

Koda said nothing.

You don't know of me?

Koda remained where he was just inside the door. I've heard of an easy-way gambler out here called Earless Gompatchi.

That's better. And what do you know of him?

Koda said nothing. He unslung his elongated carry sack and leaned it against the entryway wall, the clunk of the weapons inside sounding against the wooden pilaster. The gamblers had noticed the exaggerated hilt of the too-long sword protruding above his shoulder and knew no monk would ever carry such a field-harvester.

Let me guess then. The hero Gompatchi is fair in all things? Is that not it? Brave in street-brawls? Dauntless in love? A friend to the poor and a scourge on the rich? And a clever master of the new art of flower-card gambling?

Maybe that's it, Koda said.

Then perhaps you would like to tell me who you are.

Koda said nothing then he said, A cold person.

Earless Gompatchi smiled. A cold person? Nothing more?

A person alone.

I see. Then tell us about your holy vows.

My vows?

It's not permitted to wear the robes of an Emptiness Monk if one has not taken the vows of the order. Some might wonder if you are a true follower of the way. Some might accuse you of committing an impersonation.

Koda shifted the weight off his bad knee and continued to watch the man addressing him.

Where did you get your disguise?

I found it.

You found it. Earless Gompatchi smiled affably. So you met a monk who didn't need his robes and hat any longer?

Maybe that's it.

Why didn't he need them? Had he changed his way of life?

Koda said nothing.

I think you robbed him. Earless Gompatchi smiled again then said, I think you attacked him and took his possessions unlawfully.

You can think whatever you like.

Earless Gompatchi sat musing for a moment then said, There was a difficulty a few of years ago, one that could not be resolved, and my associates and I found ourselves condemned to severe punishments. One man lost his hands, another his feet, two were blinded. I was given a choice. The shogunate officers said they would cut off my ears and sever my man-parts. But if I could cut off my ears myself, the rest of me would be left intact. The knife they gave me had a dull blade. And even though I gripped myself tightly in my belly-spirit, the sound of the ear-sawing, the pain of it and the bleeding... He smiled at the memory and said, Even if you can cut through one, the blood-seepage making your grip on the knife handle slippery, even if you can manage it, you still have the other, with all the pain of the one you just cut screaming at you and the memory of that pain and the anticipation of the new pain to come. Trust me, this is not a thing most men can do.

He moved his head from side to side again, displaying his ear buds.

But look how well I did it. Clean slices, friend, clean cuts both. First the left, then the right. So what do you say to that?

How do I know you still have your man-parts?

Gompatchi laughed and said, Very good! Come and sit by the fire and get warm.

Koda hung back for a moment then came forward and found a place among them. I'm a Koda, he said. Of the Koda of Dewa.

Dewa is far away.

Yes it is.

You also said you're alone.


What did you mean? That you prefer the solitary life?

Koda looked at him. Just that it's how I am.

All right. Gompatchi had noticed the ulcerous wounds on his wrists, the damage done to his knees; and he asked if his tonsure hadn't been inflicted in the punishment gaol.

Something like that.

Samurai aren't usually treated so disrespectfully.

Koda said nothing.

My understanding is samurai should be killed or forgiven, said Gompatchi, but never imprisoned. He referred the question to one of the samurai in his employ, a large, somber man from the Ishida Clan whose drooping eyelids and heavy features gave the impression of someone who was saddened irrevocably by the difficulties of the world.

Or allowed to kill themselves, said the Ishida man.

Yes. Of course. Cut the belly like a good boy. Gompatchi looked at Koda. But that hasn't been your understanding of such matters?

I guess not, Koda said.

You guess not. Earless Gompatchi adopted a thoughtful manner then said, Perhaps you could describe your own views. Share with us your Dewa samurai heritage.

Koda remained silent for a moment, staring into the crackling bonfire, then he looked up and fixed Gompatchi with his gaze. Samurai kill people. That's what they do.

By which you mean kill those deserving of death.

Koda's expression didn't waver. People. Whoever is available.

Gompatchi returned his challenge. You're all alone here.

Fighting many opponents is no more difficult than fighting one, Koda said.

You could be overwhelmed.

I don't think so.

You don't think so...

The many will wish to coordinate themselves. Because each man hopes to survive. The man alone has the advantage. And his strategy unremarkable.

You are threatening us?


But you feel you could defeat us?


Gompatchi sat pondering this for a moment. I don't believe you could do it, he said finally.

One of the gamblers sitting near the communal wine pot had a matchlock pistol shoved in his sash in the manner of the southern barbarians. Start with him, Koda said. Slash him across the eyes. You'll hear his cries, see his blood, smell his fear. It will change you. You may spread yourselves apart more widely than you should. I'll cut down the men in the middle. If you close in for support, I'll swing around from the outside and you'll impede each other's sword space. He smiled. Or perhaps I'd start it another way entirely.

But you'd start it?

We're just talking, Koda said.

What about this? The samurai with the matchlock jerked it out. It'll shoot a hole right through you!

Koda ignored him. Once you begin, you do it all. Any weeper you take pity on will never forgive you the humiliation of it. You'll be required to confront him eventually. Better to do it now. If a man has brothers, kill them too. If you kill the husband, kill the wife. If you kill the parents, kill the children. Do not insult them by allowing them to survive. Koda looked calmly at each of the men sitting around him in the flickering firelight, all of them silenced by his snakelike certainty. Then he returned his attention to Earless Gompatchi. What you said is true. No samurai should ever be imprisoned. Cut him down or let him go.

Gompatchi said nothing, but the dour Ishida samurai rinsed his wine cup then poured it full and held it out to Koda.

I don't drink wine.

For the warmth then...

Warm yourself.

Ishida held the full cup, unsure what to do with it. I guess you have been on your own too long, he said. I guess you got out of the habit of being with other people.


They were gone by the time he got back there, the floor boards stripped out and burned, all the fixtures burned for the heat found in them. Even the little tray table had been thrown onto the fire, and the tatami mat had been hacked apart and burned, leaving dense wads of powdery ash in places, some of which still bore a few charred shreds of the binding brocade.

Koda searched through the outer edges of the berm-road hamlet until he found a freshly trampled path made by a party of men heading out into the moorlands. The day was cold and overcast but no snow fell; and he caught up with them finally at a newly-built mortuary shelter where they had paused to rest. The land there had been set aside for the city's future dead, and a few clan tombs stood erected already on the snow-filled plain, isolated and forlorn. The foundations for a bell tower occupied the edge of the new cemetery grounds, and the space for what would eventually be a grand funerary temple had been cleared and smoothed near a grove of leafless trees.

Koda watched the morose Ishida samurai as he came out to intercept him. I thought you didn't want to be with us.

He told him he just couldn't sleep there.

I guess you have refined tastes.

I don't like other people around me when I'm sleeping.

Ishida said most people thought being together was safer.

I guess that means I'm not like you.

Ishida looked off at the snow-covered hills beyond the moorlands. Then why are you following us?

The gamblers had built a fire at the front edge of the mortuary shelter and distributed the rations for their midday meal. They had a cask of rice wine they heated in an iron pot then dipped out with a ladle, and they had wine cups fashioned from of sections of green bamboo.

Koda picked at the rations he'd been given, moving bits around in a simulation of eating.

Gompatchi studied him then held out his makeshift wine cup to be filled again. So what happened to your basket hat?

I decided I didn't like it.

You didn't like it. So then are we to assume you're no longer living the life of an Emptiness Monk?

Koda looked at him for a moment then said, I guess not.

And were you ever? said the matchlock owner.

They finished their meal and poured the rest of the wine into their big pot then broke apart the wine cask and began feeding bits of it into the fire, the inner surfaces of the wooden slats hissing and steaming as they charred. A couple of the gamblers went outside to piss, choosing to do so behind one of the newly erected family tombs.

I bet pissing in front of people is another thing he won't do, said the matchlock owner.

A rat-faced gambler said he thought they shouldn't be pissing on tombs.

I guess the dead won't mind.

The rat-faced gambler said he thought they would mind. It was his understanding the ghosts who collected near new tombs were of a particularly virulent type due to the lack of the moderating effect of the company of the older dead.

That's not it, said the senior mat sweeper. They're just ashamed.

Ashamed? The pistol-owner dipped out another large cup of wine for himself. What a stupid idea.

Ashamed of being dead, said the mat sweeper. When someone dead looks at you, what they want is not to be rejected. It was the mat sweeper's responsibility to manage the flow of a game, and the other gamblers respected him and paid attention to his opinions.

I guess I never heard anything like that, said the rat-faced gambler, and Earless Gompatchi said it was news to him too.

They know you're disgusted by them, said the senior mat sweeper. And they are too. How could they not be? What they want is not to be blamed for it.

Blamed for being dead? said the man with the pistol. He glanced at Koda. You ever hear of anything like that?


As if it's their fault they got that way? And that's why they feel ashamed? You don't see how stupid that is?

No one said anything then Koda said, It's never anyone's fault.

I guess that's what I just said, said the pistol-owner. I guess we agree.

Every man's death holds him, Koda said. Like a thing in a hand. And every year you go past your death-day without knowing how special it is. Of course you can't know. But if you could, would you? What would it be like to know the day of your death but not the year?

Or know the year but not the day? said the rat-faced gambler.

That's it, too, said Gompatchi. But which would you choose?

The gamblers looked at each other, afternoon drinkers pondering thoughts of sufficient novelty and merit as to require careful consideration.

I'll tell you the one I wouldn't chose would be the day of it, Earless Gompatchi said.

Because you'd worry as it came closer, said the mat-sweeper. But think how free you would feel on all the other days. You could do anything, fight anybody.

I'll drink to that, said the pistol-man sarcastically, and he drained his cup then refilled it.

But what a thing to know, said the rat-faced gambler, also dipping out more wine.

But knowing your death-year, too, said the mat sweeper; although they agreed knowing the year of it would be less binding.

Unless of course you keep hanging on and hanging on, said Gompatchi, and everybody else is paying off their debts and cleaning house and getting ready for the end-of-year celebrations...

The rat-faced gambler laughed. And you're just sitting there all alone. Hoping maybe death forgot.

How could you do that? said the pistol-man, his face pink with wine, his grin loose and easy. That's a stupid hope.

You'd still hope it.

Still a stupid idea, he said, drinking.

Or like death got the year wrong, the senior mat sweeper said, a clerical error not caught in time; and they smiled at that idea and shoved the last of the cask slats onto their scrappy bonfire.

The man with the matchlock emptied his cup then dipped it full again, slopping wine over the edge. He held it out to Koda. Fellowship of the gang.

I don't drink.

Just one.

Koda said nothing.

One for you, said the pistol-man, still pushing it towards him. Cheer you up.

Koda took the makeshift wine cup and held it then gave it back. Like I said.

You won't sleep where we sleep. You won't piss how we piss. And now you won't even taste our wine?

Koda watched him but said nothing.

He said before he doesn't like drinking, said Earless Gompatchi. All the more for you.

The pistol-man held his cup as if trying to decide. Then he tilted it slightly and let a loose dribble splatter Koda's feet. Sorry.

By twilight they had reached a town large enough to sustain them. The gamblers set up a game in the local inn while the bullies and knife boys kept themselves in an annex, ready to intervene should their skills be required.

Earless Gompatchi and Ishida brought Koda to the game site. You need to understand how to read the room, Gompatchi said. Separate the outside from the inside.

Koda said nothing, but he was listening.

There are occasions when unscrupulous types will try to rob us. They'll usually have one or two in the game. You need to understand how it should be so you can recognize when it's going wrong.

They ran that game until just before dawn then slept a few hours and started the next one in mid-afternoon. Most of the fighters and knife boys sat around the fire pit in the back, distracting themselves with a pot of cloudy rice wine they warmed over the fire in the hopes of masking the sourness of it. Earless Gompatchi had continued to instruct Koda in the art of the way of the flower-cards, with Ishida adding comments occasionally. They ordered another pot of the cloudy wine and platters of tidbits to go with it, and Koda slung his too-long sword across his back and went outside.

The sun hung low in winter mist above the western hills, spreading a reddish tinge throughout the cloud-wash there while the snow-covered slopes darkened with arriving shadows. Koda crossed through the snowfield then stopped and stood gazing at the streaks of red behind the blackness of the far hills, the pale aquamarine of the upper sky, the water star low on the horizon. He stood looking at it for a long time, the beauty at the end of a winter day, the world waiting as the light sank away.

A shooting contest. The matchlock owner had come out behind him. He drove a patched ball into the firing chamber with his ramrod then primed the pan. The trunk of that dead pine down there.

I don't like guns.

I didn't ask what you liked.

The other fighters had followed him outside, and Earless Gompatchi came out too. Put it away, he said.

The matchlock owner blew on the punk cord until it glowed then used both thumbs to ease the serpentine forward to half-cock. He chose an exaggerated firing stance, with his arm extended, pointing the pistol in the direction of the target. You have your skills and I have mine. Then he turned slowly as if he'd anticipated a response he wasn't hearing, bringing his arm around too, not quite aiming at Koda but showing him what that might be like. You look a little worried now, he said, enjoying himself, twisting his wrist this way and that in a demonstration of bravado that was both a threat and the parody of one.

Then he sat down hard. His arm on the ground beside him still gripped the pistol, the match-tip guttering in the snow. He looked up at Koda amazed, blood flooding out of the stump where his arm had been. Then his face blanked white and his eyelids fluttered, and he lay back on the icy surface of trampled snow and sighed. He blinked his eyes as if to clear them from some irritation then sighed again and stopped blinking them.

Koda reached down and plucked up the hem of the dying man's robe. He cleaned the edge of his too-long sword with it.

The others all stood there looking at him.

I don't like guns, Koda said.

Earless Gompatchi turned away, and the others followed him back inside, but Ishida stayed with him. That shouldn't have happened like that.

Koda returned his too-long sword over his shoulder into its scabbard, the sweep of it sliding home like the sound of a nightjar's cry. But it did.